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An American Boy: Remembering Tom Petty

It’s one of rock ‘n’ roll’s greatest trades. Tom Petty was only 10 years old when his uncle invited him to the set of the Elvis Presley flick Follow That Dream, which was filming not far from Petty’s hometown of Gainesville, Florida, in 1961. The kid was in awe of the King, too tongue-tied to do more than shake hands. “What stays with me is the whole scene,” Petty told Esquire in 2006. “I had never seen a real mob scene before. I was really young and impressionable. Elvis really did look — he looked sort of not real, as if he were glowing. He was astounding, even spiritual. It was like a procession in church: a line of white Cadillacs and mohair suits and pompadours so black, they were blue.”

When Petty returned home, he traded his prized slingshot for a friend’s stack of Elvis 45s. The music contained in the grooves of those records would inspire Petty to pursue rock ‘n’ roll as something more than a hobby and would inform every album he ever made. “Elvis became a symbol of a place Tom Petty wanted to go,” wrote Warren Zanes in his 2015 biography, Petty. “Life would begin to display its offerings. He had only a few years to wait. Lying awake through those nights, waiting, he could see Elvis’s face, hear the songs in his head.” Petty took guitar lessons from Don Felder, who would later move west and join the Eagles, and spent his adolescence gigging around Florida as a professional musician.

On October 2, 2017, Petty was found in full cardiac arrest at his home in Malibu. He was taken to UCLA Santa Monica Hospital, but was taken off life support when doctors discovered no brain activity. Despite premature reports of his death, Petty clung to life for several hours before passing yesterday evening. In the 50 years between his handshake with Elvis and his death, he made his teenage dreams come true many times over. He formed one of the great rock ‘n’ roll groups of the late 20th century, recorded 13 studio albums with the band and three solo, toured the world countless times, and enjoyed hits in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and even into the 2000s — a feat few other musicians have managed to accomplish.

Whether he was writing songs about archetypal Americans or jamming with his heroes in the Travelin’ Wilburys or playing “Refugee” for the umpteenth time, Petty always made it look fun. He always made rock ‘n’ roll look like something you would trade a slingshot for. Perhaps because he did not possess the obvious good looks of Springsteen or even the Coug, Petty led with his sense of humor, usually sporting a wide, wry smile as though he couldn’t believe his good fortune. Despite certain dark aspects of his life — including heroin addiction and estrangement from his children — he often looked like a man suddenly realizing what he did for a living — a self-awareness he shared with his hero Elvis. Playing a rock show looked like the most fun in the world, and by all reports his enthusiasm hadn’t diminished even on the Heartbreakers’ recent tour celebrating 40 years together.

Unlike the Allman Brothers, who cut their teeth in Sarasota, Petty didn’t really play Southern rock. Unlike Gram Parsons, born in Winterhaven just south of Gainesville, Petty didn’t really play country either. But he absorbed those influences and others — the jangle-rock of the Byrds, the gritty blues of the Rolling Stones, the nasal delivery of Dylan — and spit them out into something that at the time resembled heartland rock. Petty never came across as a good ol’ boy, and he never seemed haunted by the ghosts of the American South, but that didn’t stop him from writing eloquently and insightfully about his origins on 1985’s Southern Accents. The title track could only have come from an artist who has lived where his accent distinguishes him from everybody else — i.e., an ex-pat. “I got my own way of livin’,” he sings. “But everything gets done with a Southern accent where I come from.”

Petty worked through a series of acts in Gainesville before his third band, Mudcrutch, were signed to Shelter Records, the label started by Leon Russell and producer Denny Cordell. In 1974 they all moved from the East Coast to the West Coast, but the band didn’t survive long after its first single. From the ashes of that band Petty and guitarist Mike Campbell formed the Heartbreakers, who took punk’s nerviness but not its aggression and applied it to taut rock tunes that played up the precision of the rhythm section, the friction between the guitars, and the whirlwind of Benmont Tench’s Hammond organ. Their first records weren’t especially big sellers, and “Breakdown” and “American Girl,” both from their 1976 self-titled debut, wouldn’t become hits until years later.

And yet, Petty emerges as a songwriter whose ambitions lie in his plainspokenness. He was after something more largely American, although perhaps equally mythic. Falling somewhere between the social realism of Mellencamp and the poetic license of Springsteen, Petty wrote about men and women as rock ‘n’ roll archetypes, as though every song he or anybody else ever wrote was about the same people. “American Girl,” still among his most popular tunes, is not about one girl but every girl “who couldn’t help thinkin’ that there was a little more to life somewhere else.” Jonathan Demme toyed with this sense of self-determination in Silence Of The Lambs, when one of Buffalo Bill’s victims sings along excitedly with Petty in her car, just before her abduction. Still, I prefer this live clip from The Old Grey Whistle Test, which demonstrates the formidable dynamic between the band.

It wasn’t until the end of the 1970s, after Petty went bankrupt trying to extricate himself from his record deal, that the band hit its stride with Damn The Torpedoes, a lean, muscular rock album and still their finest moment. The Heartbreakers waste no notes, Petty wastes no words, and producer Jimmy Iovine adds some studio flourishes that still sound weird; even at only nine songs, it seems crammed with hits: “Refugee,” “Here Comes My Girl,” “Even The Losers,” “Don’t Do Me Like That.” Around this time they also made a very famous fan: Stevie Nicks approached Petty demanding he write a song for her. Initially suspicious, he penned “Insider” but kept it for himself. They did have a hit with the duet “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” from her 1981 solo debut Belladonna, and she did finally get to sing “Insider” on the Heartbreakers’ 1985 live album, Pack Up The Plantation. As Nicks told Rolling Stone recently, “Had Tom Petty called me up one day and said, ‘If you want to leave Fleetwood Mac to be in the Heartbreakers, there’s a place for you,’ I might very well have done it. Anytime. Today! Because it’s my favorite band.”

Petty thrived in the era of MTV, perhaps because he injected his videos with a good dose of weird humor. “Don’t Come Around Here No More” casts him as the Mad Hatter in a rock ‘n’ roll Alice In Wonderland, but “You Got Lucky” might be even better. The Heartbreakers play a gang of bikers roaming the roads of a post-apocalyptic America, stumbling onto a bunker stocked with such quintessentially American devices as pinball machines, televisions, and arcade games. It has nothing to do with the content of the song, a fairly poisonous brush-off of an ex, but it plays nicely into Cold War fears of nuclear annihilation and, more crucially, takes a jab at rock nostalgia. The favorite distractions of one generation will be dismissed as inconsequential by the next.

Maybe that jab was unintentional, as Petty followed it up by touring three continents with Bob Dylan and eventually joining him in the Wilburys, the infamous supergroup that also boasted Roy Orbison, George Harrison, and Jeff Lynne. With Dylan struggling and Springsteen adrift, Petty became one of the foremost chroniclers of the American rock ‘n’ roll experience, and his songs from the late ’80s and early ’90s did not disregard his age or his stature. “Free Fallin’,” from 1989’s Full Moon Fever, his first album without the Heartbreakers, gained more gravity from the fact that the singer-songwriter was entering his 40s, yet he didn’t look at all out of place when Axl Rose slithered onstage for a duet at the 1989 VMAs.

If Petty had issues with celebrity, he rarely aired them publicly. While others struggled with their success and the distance it put between them and their subjects, Petty seemed casual and comfortable in his fame. Paradoxically, that only reinforced Petty’s everyman status and made him more relatable as he aged. His 21st-century albums weren’t major statements, but solid rock albums usually defined by a passion-project spark of life. He could never find his balance on the soapbox, which makes songs like “The Last DJ” (about shifting radio formats) and “Money Becomes King” (about the evils of the music industry) more than a little awkward. But recent albums like 2006’s Highway Companion and 2014’s Hypnotic Eye convey an undying belief in rock ‘n’ roll as a vital and animating medium, a professional calling but also a young man’s endeavor. Even the wisdom he passed along was delivered with a sly wink and some adolescent imagery: “You need rhino skin if you’re gonna begin to walk through this world,” he sings on a track from 1999’s epic Echo. “You need elephant balls if you don’t want to crawl on your hands through this world.”

One of Petty’s final projects was producing a comeback record for his hero Chris Hillman, famous from the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and the Desert Rose Band. As Hillman told Stereogum recently, “I called up Petty and I said, ‘Tom, you sure you want to do this?’ He said he wanted to work with me and said we could use his studio. ‘But you haven’t heard any of my songs or any of my ideas!’ He wasn’t worried about it. I’m still going, OK, whatever. I’ve got this very nonchalant reaction to all of it.” Even in his 60s, Petty came across as a guy still excited to meet his heroes, still as open as he ever was to the possibilities of rock ‘n’ roll. Hillman covers Petty’s 1994 tune “Wildflowers,” and now it’s impossible not to hear it as a kind of eulogy: “You belong among the wildflowers… you belong somewhere you feel free.” Perhaps that’s what makes Petty’s death so hard to grasp and so painful to process: He had a long and storied career, but in some very important ways he never really grew up. He was always that kid who loved Elvis more than his slingshot.

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